From Silicon Valley to Singapore: How Zoher Karu is Unlocking the Power of Data to Drive Citi’s Consumer Banking Business in Asia Pacific and EMEA
Zoher Karu has a different set of challenges on his plate today than he did two years ago. Back then, he was Chief Data Officer for eBay in San Jose, California, and his team’s tasks included analysing data to understand customer preferences, determine sales seasonality patterns, uncover the latest trends and personalize marketing communications.
In late 2017, however, Zoher swapped Silicon Valley for Singapore and joined the banking sector – for the first time in his career – as Head of Data and Analytics for Citi’s Asia Pacific and EMEA Consumer Banking business, which comprises 12 markets in Asia Pacific and 5 in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
These days you’ll find Zoher using data to create new revenue streams for Citi and using the power of data and analytics to uncover new insights and improve the banking experience for Citi’s customers.
Despite Zoher’s background in tech firms, corporates, startups and consultancies – previous employers include Sears and McKinsey – he says it was a straightforward decision to join Citi, because data and analytics were becoming “drivers of the business”.
“Citi was transitioning into a data and digitally-driven enterprise and wanted me to help lead this transformation,” he says. “I now get to work on different projects across the business simultaneously and find the common linkages, while data professionals at other firms may typically focus on one particular problem at a time.”
Unlike in other companies, where data roles are sometimes ‘buried within the organizational structure”, at Citi, Zoher reports directly to Gonzalo Luchetti, the firm’s Head of Consumer Banking for Asia Pacific and EMEA.
His team, which spans multiple locations across Asia and Europe, including the consumer business’ regional headquarters in Singapore, collaborates with nearly of all Citi’s Consumer Banking units. Zoher also has a sizeable team located in Citi’s Centers of Excellence in Chennai and Bangalore.
By closely partnering with the business, Zoher’s team’s priorities are directly aligned to business outcomes. For example, each unit – from credit cards to marketing – has a dedicated stakeholder in the data team, who regularly attends their meetings and gets to grips with the challenges they are facing.
“We don’t just create fancy algorithms; we drive revenue and proactively solve business problems for our peers and colleagues in other divisions,” Zoher explains.
As someone who continually seeks out the best talent to join his team, Zoher is “selectively” hiring this year for roles ranging from business analysts for new insights, data scientists for predictive models, data engineers to build, operate, and measure Citi's data engine, and data product owners, who create what he refers to as the “single source of truth”.
No matter the role, being successful within Zoher’s team requires being able to do the things that matter (Zoher calls this “business thinking”) with data (“analytics thinking”) at scale (“technical thinking”). “You might have a great algorithm, but can you do it 10 million times a day with huge amounts of data? Citi is ultimately in the business of creating “intelligence at scale”, not “analytics in PowerPoint”,” says Zoher.
The need for Citi’s data and analytics professionals to work closely with other teams shapes the soft skills that Zoher is looking for in new candidates. “We’re using data to change the business, so you need change management skills. We’re also talking to stakeholders about their problems, which requires a consultancy mindset,” he says.
This flows through into the themes that Zoher generally focuses on during job interviews. “I like to find out if you’re good problem solver. On the job, I might need you to work out why credit card usage isn’t high in a particular customer segment, for example,” says Zoher. “And I like to ask about your business sense – can you figure out what matters to Citi and communicate it to others in a non-technical way? Analytics isn’t just about reading the numbers; it’s about how you grow the business.”
Zoher’s team have varied tasks on their plate, but much of what they do is focused on providing more real-time data. “Banks were largely built on batch processing, but we’re now building a real-time backbone at Citi,” says Zoher. “For example, if a customer’s PIN doesn’t work at an ATM machine, we can push a reset message to their phone. And we can provide instant notifications to investment advisors when their customers make large deposits.”
The team is also working to “democratise” data to make it more useful and accessible for employees. For example, instead of emailing static reports to staff in Excel documents days or weeks after month-end, Citi is now using a data visualisation platform to let them track their own progress. “When data is instant, people can use it to make decisions, rather than check against those decisions they’ve already made,” adds Zoher.
Zoher says an important part of his role is helping to “change the culture of Citi to turn us into even more of a data-driven company”. “If mine is the only team engaged in data analytics, I’ve failed in my role. And my team isn’t doing its job if people in other departments only call us when they need some numbers – that’s why we’re involved in problem solving and decisions across the bank,” he adds.
Like Zoher, experience at a bank does not need to be an imperative to get a job in the data and analytics team at Citi, which seeks people from different consumer-focused sectors such as e-commerce, airlines, media, hospitality, and of course banking. “It is the diversity of thought that drives step changes in outcomes”, says Zoher.
“Apart from a few specialist roles that demand banking expertise, I need people with large-scale customer analytics experience from any consumer-focused industry. I am of course biased, but I believe the banking basics can be learned on the job – your ability to understand customers is the most important,” explains Zoher.
But why would a potential candidate leave a good data job in another industry (or another bank) to join Citi in Asia? “New recruits can have a massive impact on the bank and help shape its trajectory, because we’re in the middle of a data-driven transformation,” says Zoher. “You’ll also be working collaboratively with some of the smartest people in the industry, and in a region – Asia Pacific – which is at the forefront of the digital revolution in banking.”
Having worked at startups before, Zoher does understand the appeal of fintech firms. “They can have great individual platforms, but Citi provides customers with a one-stop shop, and jobs in my team allow you to connect the dots across many different products,” he says.
“The size and complexity of our business means we’re often at the cutting edge of data analytics, allowing you to work on very interesting and challenging problems – for example, how do you use data to recommend one product or message out of hundreds of different possibilities? Citi is trying to move the redline of how far we can go in using data in banking.”
Ultimately, Citi’s Data and Analytics team is working not just to grow the bank’s business, but also to help its customers “lead better and easier lives” by offering customer service and products tailored to individual needs. “Citi is on a mission to create and improve data-driven interactions with our customers – that’s what inspires me when I come to work every day,” says Zoher.